TRADITIONAL CREATION ICONS

Today I would like to talk a bit about “Creation” icons.

Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy accepted the traditional account of Creation — the biblical account found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.  If you had asked a typical Russian believer in the mid-19th century when the world and humans came into being, he would have told you that it happened 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.

Then came Charles Charles Darwin and radiometric dating.  We now know that humanity did not begin with a male and female created from dirt some 7,525 years ago, but rather that the earth is billions of years old, and humans evolved out of earlier life forms, instead of being created from earth by a deity.

There is still considerable difference of opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some cling to the traditional creation story, while others, accepting the inevitable, attempt to somehow reconcile divine creation with Darwin and science.  But in traditional icon painting, there is only one story, and that is the traditional tale of Genesis.

We see that tale depicted in this rather typical “Creation” icon.

If we look at the top, we find these incriptions:

The two large words read СОТВОРЕНИЕ СВЕТА — SOTVORENIE SVETA.

Sotvorenie means “Creation.”  Svet can mean “light,” but it also means “world.”  Here it has the “world” meaning.  So the title inscription reads “CREATION OF THE WORLD.”

In the little circle between the two title words, we see two figures seated on a throne and surrounded by stylized clouds.  That on the left is identified by an inaccurate spelling as (correctly) Господь Вседержителъ — Gospod” Vsederzhitel, meaning “the Lord Almighty.”  That is the icon title used for Jesus on countless icons.  At right is another figure identified (this time accurately spelled) as Господь Саваофъ — Gospod’ Savaof — meaning “Lord Sabaoth.”  That is the traditional icon title for God the Father.  As we can see, old Eastern Orthodoxy had a rather literal view of the Trinity as being separate persons (the Holy Spirit, not seen here, is traditionally depicted as a dove).

If we look below these inscriptions, we see God the Father having stepped down from his throne (this time no Jesus is seen):

The inscription at left tells us what is happening.  It reads:

Въ а денъ
Въ начале
Вогъ сотворилъ светъ

V” a den”
V” nachale
Bog” sotvoril” svet”

It means:

On [the] first day (remember that letters can also be numbers, so “a” is “1” or “first”)
In [the] beginning
God created [the] world/light

If we move from section to section, it tells us what God did on each day of creation, including eventually the creation of animals and of Adam and Eve.  And going beyond the creation days, It also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise,” and the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, as seen here:

If you look at the figure of Cain at lower right (red tunic, white pants, black boots), you will see a dark figure standing right behind him. That is a chort (чёрт), a devil, an evil demon.  And in Russian iconography that is the way demons are depicted — smoky black, and with hair standing high up on the head.  The chort is telling Cain to kill his brother (the old “the Devil made me do it” ploy).

In the center of the Creation icon, we see scenes taking place in heaven:

In the center is Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — with the Holy Spirit as a dove just above him.  At left God the Father stands behind the crucified Jesus.  And at right, Lord Sabaoth is sending Jesus as the Logos, the Angel of Great Counsel, into the world.  These scenes are intended to show us that the so-called “Plan of Salvation” existed from the very beginning.  The two red and white circles with faces just below are the sun and moon.  Angels stand in the background.

These “Creation” icons (at least in the traditional form) tend to be much the same, sometimes with more detail, sometimes less.  But one does notice some significant differences among them:

Look at the central image in this segment of another and earlier “Creation” icon:

Where we found God the Father seated in the previous example, this icon shows God the Father lying on a bed.  That is the image depicting Genesis 2:2:

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

So there he is, all worn out, taking a rest on his bed to recover from the work of creating.  This shows us just how literally Russian Orthodoxy traditionally took the Creation tale in Genesis.

We also find other notable differences among “Creation” icons.  For example, whereas the first icon shown here is titled Sotvorenie Sveta, we may also find the title of such icons as Sotvorenie Mira. Мир (mir) is another word meaning “world” (it can also mean “peace,” but not in this context).

Most notable, perhaps, is that there is some confusion among icon painters as to the figure used for the Creator.  As we have seen, the first icon shows “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — doing the creating.  But other images show Jesus as Logos (with or without wings, no beard, but with the seven-pointed halo) creating.  Sometimes even this Logos image is given the “Lord Sabaoth” title.  Others give the Logos image the “Lord Almighty” title traditionally used for Jesus.

The reason for these variations is that while Genesis speaks of God creating the world, it says nothing of Jesus.  But in the New Testament, the Gospel called “of John” ( no one really knows who wrote it) says in speaking of Jesus as the Logos (“Word”), “All things were made by him…”  So icon painters are left to sort out the confusion caused by the change in theology over the centuries, and some do it one way, some another.

“Creation” icons have rather lost their popularity in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, now that one has to try to reconcile their quite literal visual interpretation of Genesis with the facts of scientific earth history and evolution.  But there are still Eastern Orthodox believers who adhere to as literal a view of Creation as one sees in the traditional iconography, paying no attention to the revelations of science in the modern world.

GRAIN GODDESS: THE SPORITEL’NITSA KHLEBOV TYPE

Today’s posting is also the result of a reader question.

The inquirer came across a Marian icon showing Mary on a cloud, arms outstretched, above a field of grain.  The icon type that describes is a rather recent Russian type called Спорительница хлебов — Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov.  The first word means  a female who causes something to advance or thrive; the second part refers to bread and to grain crops.  So we can loosely translate it as “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive.”  The name is found variously in English as “She Who Ripens the Grain,” “Provider of Bread” “Provider of the Bread of Life,” “Multiplier of Bread,” and so on.  But the essence of the name indicates that Mary makes the grain thrive, which means people will have an abundant harvest and much bread.

As I mentioned, this is a rather recent icon type.  That, and the fact that it originated in the State Church, accounts for why examples of it are generally painted in the realistic manner, rather than in the stylization preferred by Old Believer iconographers.  The type, in origin, relates to the Starets (Elder) Amvrosiy (Ambrose), who lived at the famous Optina Monastery.  He always faithfully kept Marian festivals by praying before an icon of Mary in his cell.

In the year 1890, Abbess Ilariya (Hilaria) of the Volkhov Convent sent Starets Amvrosiy a newly-painted icon partly based on an “All Saints” icon in her convent, but with the addition of a field of ripe grain and sheaves below the image of Mary.  Amvrosiy gave the new type its “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive” title.  Due to Amvrosiy’s efforts, quite a number of copies of the icon were distributed among his admirers.  Amvrosiy spent his last days at a convent he had helped establish in Kaluga, where he died among the nuns.

According to tradition, the Sporitel’nitsa icon helped to end a drought and famine in the year 1892, so it became known as one of the many Russian supposed “wonderworking” icons.  Its very late date of “appearance” accounts for why it is generally found today mostly in printed reproductions (as in the example shown  above) rather than as old painted icons dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, such as this one:

This icon type always reminds me how little has changed in religion since ancient times.  Essentially the Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov shows Mary filling the role of a “Nature Goddess” who has power over the growth and harvest of grain, which was the role of the Goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres — the goddess of the harvest and of grain in the classical Greco-Roman world.

THE “TREE HOUSE” OF DAVID OF THESSALONIKI

Here is an icon pattern from the Russian Stroganov Podlinnik   Today’s focus is on the fellow in the tree, shown in this example from the month of June:

davidsolunskiy

The inscription above him — written in the handwriting style of the late 16th-early 17th century — reads:

ПР[Е]П[О]Д[O]БНАГО ОЦА НАШЕГО Д[А]В[И]ДА ИЖЕ В СЕЛУНИ СЕД РЯСА ВОХРА З БЕЛИЛОМ

PREPODOBNAGO OTSA NASHEGO DAVIDA IZHE V SELUNI
VENERABLE        FATHER   OUR        DAVID   which-is  In THESSALONIKI

RYASA VOKHRA Z BELILOM
HABIT  IN OCHRE WITH WHITE

ИЖЕ = IZHE is a Church Slavic word found often in the old painters’ manuals and in the calendar of saints.  It means approximately “which/who is,” “the one which is” or “the one who is.”  It often distinguishes saints by the place traditionally associated with them.  When used of saints in this manner,  it means loosely “the one in…”  In today’s case, this David, to distinguish him from others, is “the one in Thessaloniki.

So all together, it means:

Our Venerable Father David, the one in Thessaloniki;
Grey, habit in ochre with white.

The first part of the text identifies the saint:  David of Thessaloniki.   The second part tells how to paint him: Grey (hair and beard), and his monastic habit ochre with white.

Being of Thessaloniki, David is one of the many Greek saints celebrated in Russian Orthodoxy as well.  Here is a Greek icon of him:

davidthessaloniki

Being in red, the inscription above the saint is a bit difficult to make out, but it looks to be much the same as the usual inscription for him in Greek icons: O όσιος Δαβίδ ο εν Θεσσαλονίκη — in old pronunciation, Ho Hosios Dabid, ho en Thessaloniki, but in modern Greek, O Osios David o en Thessaloniki.  You will recall that Hosios/Osios is the title used for a monastic male saint in Greek.

The icon shows David sitting in his almond tree residence, and a non-saint kneeling at right.  We know he is not a saint because he has no halo.

At left is seated a crowned figure identified by another red inscription, partly abbreviated as:

Ο ΠΡΟΦ ΔΑΒΙΔ
Ο Προφήτης Δαβίδ
Ho Prophetes Dabid/O Prophetes David
THE PROPHET DAVID

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the King David of the Old Testament is commonly titled as “Prophet.”  In this Greek icon, King David holds a scroll reading:

δικαιος ως φοινιξ ανθησει ωσει κεδρος

That is an excerpt from Psalm 92:12 (91:13 Septuagint):
δίκαιος ὡς φοῖνιξ ἀνθήσει, ὡσεὶ ἡ κέδρος ἡ ἐν τῷ Λιβάνῳ πληθυνθήσεται.
The righteous shall flourish as a palm-tree: he shall be increased as the cedar in Lebanon.

Remember that in icons, people speak through their scrolls, like in cartoon bubbles.  So King David is saying that David of Thessaloniki is one of the righteous, and of course the mention of two kinds of trees relates to David of Thessaloniki living in a tree.

The figure shown in the clouds above is of course Jesus.

So much for the linguistic and symbolic aspect of these images.  But just who was David of Thessaloniki, and why did he live in a tree?

Well, you know from earlier postings about the odd kind of saint called a “stylite,” one who lives on a pillar.  The term for tree-dwelling saints is “dendrite.”  So David of Thessaloniki is a dendrite.

To make a long story short, David is said to have been an ascetic monk living roughly between 450-550 c.e.  He was thought to have come to Thessaloniki in Greece from Mesopotamia.  He entered the monastery of Saints Theodore and Merkourios.  While there, he somehow got it into his head that the thing to do was to make his dwelling up in the branches of the almond tree that grew beside the monastery church.  He thought that if he did that, he would somehow learn God’s will for him.  So he lived in the tree in the heat of summer and cold of winter for three years.  After that time, an angel appeared to him, saying that God had heard his prayers, but that it was time for David to climb down and live in a monastic cell like other monks.  Because of his eccentric asceticism, David gained a local reputation as a holy man and healer, and was visited by many people seeking his help.

For some reason, these stories tend to leave out details such as how the fellow living in the tree managed the sanitary necessities of being a human, but then such things are seldom mentioned in hagiography.

Greek icons of David of Thessaloniki often have him holding a scroll upon which is written:

Μοναχός εστιν αληθώς ο μηδέν έχων εν τω παρόντι βίω ει μη μόνον τον Χριστόν.

It means loosely:

“The true monk is one who in this life has nothing but Christ.”

 

GOING UP? ICONS OF THE ASCENSION

Today we will take a look at the the  “Ascension” type, called Voznesenie in Russia, and in Greek icons He Analepsis Η ΑΝΑΛΗΨΙC.
In the Bible, we find Ascension narratives only in the Gospel attributed to Luke and in the book of Acts.  Both are rather minimal.  There is also a very brief mention in the Gospel called “of Mark,” but it is not found in the earliest manuscripts, and is a later addition.

Here is a pleasant late Russian example of the Ascension type painted in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Church Slavic inscription reads ВОЗНЕСЕНИЕ ГОСПОДНЕ — Voznesenie Gospodne — “Ascension of the Lord.”

At both sides are Twelve Apostles, identified by inscription as “Apostles of the Lord.”  And in the center, as is common in “Ascension” icons, stands Mary.

Above is Jesus, rising into heaven in a circle of light carried by two angels.  Note that Jesus sits on a rainbow.  That element (not mentioned in the Gospels) comes from two main sources, the first being the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, chapter 1:

26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

27 And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.

28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

The second source is the book of Revelation, the “Apocalypse of John”:

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

What we see in this icon, then, is not the usual Western European depiction of a standing Jesus slowly rising into the clouds, but rather a depiction of Jesus raised up to the heavenly throne on which he sits and is said to come in judgment.

Here is an earlier image of the Ascension found in the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, usually dated to the 6th century, though the book as a whole may be a composite volume of more than one date.  This depiction borrows elements from Ezekiel and from the Revelation:

In it, Jesus is not seated but standing, and there is no rainbow.  There are six “standard” angels (four above, two beside Mary).  Two hold the oval in which Jesus stands, two approach Jesus with wreaths of victory, and two look toward the apostles. But just below Jesus, we see a creature with four faces, wings filled with eyes, and wheels at both sides.  This too comes from Ezekiel 1 and from the Revelation 4.  The four heads, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, symbolize the four Evangelists Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John.  The wheels, in Eastern Orthodox theology, are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

If you look carefully to upper left and right of the image, you will see the moon and the sun depicted as living beings.  Here is the moon:

And here the sun:

If we look at the group of Apostles, we see there are twelve.  As the Gospels relate, at the time of the Ascension there were only eleven, Judas having betrayed Jesus and committed suicide.  But the Rabbula image and many later examples of the Ascension add Paul as a twelfth apostle in the type (the twelfth was actually Matthias, chosen after the ascension and not depicted in it).  Of course the presence of Paul is an anachronism, but Eastern Orthodoxy likes to see the Ascension icon as also an image of the Church, and so we see Mary at center (also considered an image of the Church on her own), as well as those apostles later considered the two chief apostolic founders of the Church, Peter and Paul.

Here is a much later Russian example that has neither rainbow nor the symbols of the Evangelists nor “Thrones” nor Paul.  It is influenced not only by Western and less anachronistic depictions of the Ascension, but also shows the increased realism favored by the State Church in later times.  Here the three chief figures at bottom are Mary, the Apostle Peter at left, and the Apostle John at right:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is another Russian example, this time again painted in the traditional “stylized” manner, with much attention given to the hill from which Jesus is rising:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Ascension type is found not only as a separate icon, but also in icons showing the Resurrection and major Church festivals.

Now the interesting thing about Ascension icons is that they perpetuate right into modern times the ancient, pre-scientific notion of a universe that has humans living on a flat earth above which is a solid firmament, and above that firmament is not only a sea but also the throne of God.  “Heaven” in traditional Jewish and Christian belief was the sky, so of course when Jesus ascends, he ascends into the sky.  Now, however, thanks to science, we know that the firmament is not a solid dome, that there is no sea above it, and no throne room of God up there, where he sits like an ancient king.  Consequently, many modern Christians, in an attempt to adapt, have begun thinking of Heaven not as the sky, but as somehow in a separate dimension.  That view, however, is not in keeping with the Ascension icons nor with biblical accounts.  But early Christians, not knowing that the earth was round, and not knowing that the earth is only a tiny particle in an immense universe, thought that all Jesus had to do to reach Heaven was to go up.  Of course “up” would take one in multiple and different directions of space, depending on where and when on the globe one went up, as the earth revolves in its path around the sun.  And we know that one can go light years (the distance light travels in a year) in any direction and not find a physical Heaven as described in the Old and New Testaments.  All this provides major problems for today’s “literalist” Christians, which is why they tend not to think about the matter.

BOGOLIUBSKIY TO BILIBIN

Today’s first example is not an icon.  It is an icon-influenced illustration of a Russian saint, done by the noted Russian illustrator and stage designer Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942).  If you know Russian fairy tales, you have likely seen the colorful Bilibin illustrations for them.  And who does not enjoy a good story about Baba Yaga the Witch?

I show you this illustration because it depicts a person often found in icons, and its inscription in Church Slavic is one you should be able to translate now without difficulty if you have read the little lessons in previous postings:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Let’s look at the inscription:

It is only slightly abbreviated:

С[ВЯ]ТЫЙ БЛАГОВЕРНЫЙ ВЕЛИКИЙ КН[Я]ЗЬ АНДРЕЙ БОГОЛЮБСКИЙ
SVYATUIY BLAGOVERNUIY VELIKIY KNYAZ” ANDREY BOGOLIUBSKIY
“HOLY GOOD-BELIEVING GREAT PRINCE ANDREY BOGOLIUBSKIY”

Blagovernuiy means literally “good-believing,” but it is understood to mean a “true, Orthodox believer.”  It was a title formerly applied to members of the Russian Imperial Family.  Velikiy Knyaz is sometimes translated as “Great Prince,” sometimes as “Grand Duke.”

Bilibin has depicted him holding the “Vladimir” icon of Mary.  The story of the Vladimir image — in brief — is that it was brought from Constantinople to Kiev in 1131.  It was placed in a convent at Vyshgorod, today a suburb of Kiyev/Kiev.  Prince Andrey Bogoliubskiy invaded and plundered Kiev in 1155.  He took the icon from the convent, and was on his way back to Suzdal with it, so the story goes, when the horses stopped, and refused to go farther.   Supposedly Andrey prayed all night and Mary appeared to him, telling him to take her icon to Vladimir, and to build a church and convent on the site of his vision.  Then the horses were allowed to move again.

Andrey did have a church and convent built on the site, and called the place Bogoliubovo — meaning loosely “Loved by God” — and from that is derived his name, Bogoliubskiy.

There is something else to note in this Bilibin illustration — the white church in the background at left.  It depicts a real church.  In Russian it is called the  Церковь Покрова на Нерли — Tserkov Pokrova na Nerli — literally, the “Church of the Protection on the Nerl” (the Nerl is a river).   The Pokrov (which means literally “veil” and figuratively “protection”), you may recall, is an old icon type discussed in a previous posting.  In English that church is often referred to as the “Church of the Intercession,” which blurs its real meaning somewhat.  Why is it shown here with Andrey Bogoliubskiy?  Because he commissioned the building of the white stone church in the year 1165 — tradition says in memory of his dead son Izyaslav — and it is still there today.  Andrey Bogoliubskiy also introduced the Pokrov as a church festival in his region.

Following the precedent of Constantinople, Bogoliubskiy made Mary the protectress and patron of royal authority and the State (HIS authority and HIS State, of course).  In addition to the “Vladimir” image, Andrey is also associated with the Marian icon known as the Bogoliubskaya.  You will recall that according to the traditional story, when taking the “Vladimir” image back to Suzdal, the horses stopped, Andrey prayed at great length, and Mary appeared to him.  He is said to have had the first Bogoliubskaya image painted in commemoration of that.

The Bogoliubskaya image exists in several variants.  The basic type shows Mary standing full length with an open scroll in her hand, looking to the right of the image, where Christ is seen in the clouds above.  The text on Mary’s scroll varies from example to example.  Other examples show one or more figures kneeling before Mary at right.  Generally when it is only one figure, it is Andrey Bogoliubskiy.

The most interesting variant is that known as the Bogoliubskaya Moskovskaya — the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya type.

Here is an example of that “Moscow” type, which, though painted in the manner of the late 17th century Armory School of Moscow, is nonetheless a recent icon:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Icons of the “Moscow” Bogoliubskaya type are characterized by Mary standing at left with an opened scroll in her hand, and a group of bowing and kneeling figures at right, among them Moscow saints and other saints popular in that region.  They vary somewhat from example to example, but in general one often finds The Metropolitans of Moscow Pyotr, Alexiy, Iona and Filipp; the “Fools for Christ’s sake” Vasily/Basil, Maxim, and Alexiy, Man of God;  Venerable Paraskeva; Basil the Great; the Apostle Peter; the nun-martyr Evdokiya; the martyr Paraskeva, and Simeon the Kinsman of the Lord.

 

 

THE DIFFERENCE A FEW KOPEKS MAKE: THE “JOY OF ALL WHO SUFFER ‘WITH COINS'”

In an earlier posting, I talked about the very popular Marian icon type called in Church Slavic Vsem Skorbyashchim Radost, — the “Joy of All Who Suffer.”  You may also find it titled Всех скорбящих Радость — Vsekh Skorbyashchikh Radost, which is the same name in Russian.  The Skorbyashchim/Skorbyashchikh part means both “those who are afflicted” and “those who sorrow,” which is why some translate the title as “Joy of/to Those Who Sorrow.”

Today we will look at an interesting and common subtype of that icon.  It is called Всех скорбящих Радость (с грошиками) — Vsekh Skorbyashchikh Radost S Groshikami, meaning “The Joy of All Who Suffer ‘With Coins.'”  The example below —  which appears to have been painted in oils — bears the title: ОБРАЗ СКОРБЯЩИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ OBRAZ SKORBYASHCHIYA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI “[THE] IMAGE OF [THE] ‘OF THE SUFFERING’ MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD” Looking at it, we can see why it is commonly called “With Coins”;  it has coins on its surface.  In most icons the coins are painted, but the maker of this example used real copper coins inserted into the panel:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is a half-kopek coin from 1898: And here is another from 1909.   The С.П.Б. at the bottom indicates the coin is from the Saint Petersburg mint: Icons of this sub-type often have a brief inscription at the base stating the origin, as we see in the following example produced near the end of the Tsarist era — one of the new mass-produced, chromolithographed icons on tin, such as were offered by the firm of Jacquot and Bonacœur (in Russian Жако и Бонакер), which also produced other kinds of tin goods such as colorful boxes.  These “printed tin” icons competed with the business of icon painters and further contributed to their decline:

 The problem with these colorful old icons on metal is that when scratched or exposed to moisture, they tend to rust very easily, though they were quite attractive to the ordinary Russian buyer when new.

Here is its title inscription, in beautiful traditional lettering, but in Russian rather than Church Slavic:

vsekhsklithtitle And here is the “origin” inscription:

It says:

The true likeness of the wonderworking image of the Mother of God “Joy of All Who Suffer”; it turned up after a thunderstorm that broke out the 23 of July in the year  1888 over the chapel located at St. Petersburg, in the area adjacent to the glass factory.

The traditional story relates that there were several icons in the chapel.  It was struck by lightning, and everything inside was charred, with the exception of one icon that was found where it had fallen face down on the floor.  When it was turned over, the dark surface of the image had become fresh and clear, and sticking to the surface were eleven coins from the poor box that had been shattered by the lightning strike. Now, given the religious mind of ordinary Russians at that time, this event that sounds rather ordinary to us today was seen then as remarkably miraculous.  Within a day of the event, crowds of pilgrims gathered at the chapel, and the fame of the image spread far and wide, drawing even greater masses of people.  And then followed the inevitable “miraculous” healings that are associated with such images in Eastern Orthodoxy.

As we have seen, this image is a variation on the popular “Joy of All Who Suffer” type, and it is said that the image that was eventually transformed by lightning into the “With Coins’ variant was originally found floating in the Neva River by a member of the Kurakin family; later a relative, a merchant named Matveev, donated the icon to the chapel in the village of Klochka, not far from the glassworks, by St. Petersburg. You probably noticed the two inscribed banners at Mary’s sides, which are common to this sub-type.  Loosely translated, they are:

NAGIM’ ODYEYANIE  —- “CLOTHER OF THE NAKED”

And: BOL”NUIM’ ISTSYELENIE — “HEALER OF THE ILL”

These inscriptions illustrate what is happening in the icon:  at left an angel holds out clothing to the naked, and at right another angel stands behind the ill who have come to Mary for healing.

It is important to know the date of appearance of the so-called “wonderworking” Marian icons, because we know that an icon cannot be earlier than the time of its appearance.  So if you happen to be offered an icon of the “Joy of All Who Suffer ‘With Coins'” as an 18th-century icon, you will know that dating is impossible, given that the image did not exist prior to 1888.  The same rule of thumb applies to saints, whose icons are not likely to be found before the date of “glorification” (the Russian equivalent of canonization) of the saint depicted. The “With Coins” sub-type of the “Joy of All Who Suffer” is also often referred to as Всех скорбящих Радость близ Стеклянного завода — Vsekh Skorbyashchikh Radost” Bliz Steklyannogo Zavoda —  “The Joy of All Who Suffer ‘Near The Glass Factory.'”

THE NURSING GODDESS: FROM ISIS TO MARY

I mentioned in an earlier posting (“Protection Images East and West”) that the earliest written prayer to Mary was found in Egypt — Rylands Papyrus #470. It is generally known by its first words in Latin translation, Sub Tuum Praesidium — “Under Your Protection.” Though it is fragmentary, the missing parts may be supplied to read:

Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν………..”Under your compassion
καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε………………We flee for refuge, God-birther
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας……………………….Our petitions
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει…………….Do not disregard in affliction
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς….But rescue us from danger
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη………Only Pure, only Blessed.”

We can paraphrase it as:

We flee under your compassion for refuge, Birthgiver of God; do not despise our prayers when troubles surround us, but deliver us from danger, only pure one, only blessed one.

In this prayer, Mary is not approached as an intercessor or intermediary, but rather directly for her powers of deliverance.

I wrote in that earlier posting that It is not surprising we find this earliest-known prayer to Mary in Egypt. Egypt was the land of the goddess Isis — the mother of the god Horus, and one of her titles was Mut Netjer,” “Mother of [the] God,” which we may liken to Theotokos — “Birthgiver of God” in Greek.  The worship of Isis spread in the Roman Empire, with processions, temples, paintings, and images such as this one, from the 2nd century c.e.:

(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

As I have said before, as Christianity spread in the Greco-Roman world (which included Egypt at that time) under Roman imperial patronage, the worship of the old gods was first discouraged, then persecuted; and as that happened, the places and functions of the old gods were gradually taken over by Christian saints, the most prominent of which was Mary, who took on the role of the new Mother Goddess.

While the veneration of Isis was fading in the Empire, the veneration of Mary was growing.  As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The use of Theotokos as a title of Mary was officially authorized at the Council of Ephesus in 431 c.e., after a controversy over whether Mary should be called “Birthgiver of Christ” or “Birthgiver of God.” The latter won out.

At the far southern edge of Egypt lay the Temple of Isis at Philae.  In spite of the 392 edict of Emperor Theodosius closing all temples in Egypt, the Isis temple and the other temples at Philae remained open until they were finally officially closed only in the reign of the Byzantine Christian Emperor Justinian, in 535 – 537 c.e.  That is considered the symbolic end of the old Egyptian religion.

Temple at Philae; mid 19th century

Temple at Philae; mid 19th century

But in life, such boundaries are rarely so distinct.

Images of Isis as Mother of Horus frequently depicted her nursing her divine child, as in this Egyptian example:

(Walters Art Museum)

(Walters Art Museum)

It is not a great step from that three-dimensional image to this wall painting of Mary nursing the child Jesus, found in the Coptic Monastery of Apa Jeremiah (Deir Apa Jeremiah) at Saqqara, Egypt, generally dated 6th – 7th century c.e.:

And from that, it is but another short step to icons of the type known in Greek as the Galaktotrouphousa and in Russia as Mlekopitatelnitsa.  Here is a Russian example.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The smaller images of St. Nicholas and John the Forerunner at lower left and right are not a part of the type.

Let’s look at the title inscription:

mlekipinsc

It reads:  МЛЕКОПИТА          ТЕЛНИЦА ПРе[святая] Б[огоро]д[и]ца

Joining the two sides, we get in transliteration:
MLEKOPITATELNITSA PRESVYATAYA BOGORODITSA
“[THE] MILK-FEEDING MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”

As is typical in traditional Russian iconography, conscious effort is made to remove the image from reality.  That is why Mary’s breast is so oddly depicted and placed near her shoulder — an attempt to avoid any trace of sensuality:

mlekopdet1_1

The Russian Mlekopitatelnitsa type is said by tradition to be based on the Galaktotrophousa (“Milk-nursing”) icon once kept at the Monastery of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, not far from Jerusalem. The hagiographic tradition relates that St. Sabbas, near death, said prophetically that the icon would be given into the hands of a relative of the Serbian Royal Family who would also bear the name “Sava.” (Sabbas).  St. Sabbas died in 532, during the reign of Justinian.  In the 13th century, the first Archbishop of Serbia, named Sava (Sabbas) (1174-1236), visited the monastery, and was given the icon (together, supposedly, with the “Three-handed” icon of Mary).  On his way back, the Archbishop came to Mount Athos, where he eventually had the Khilandar Monastery restored as a Serbian monastery, and gave to it the “Milk-nursing” icon from Palestine.